‘Poker Face’ is the millennial ‘Columbo’ riff I’ve been waiting for
Poker Face isn’t the sort of show that can be spoiled, but have a warning anyway.
I always think there’s been a gulf between production-line TV and its prestige brethren, but that the internet helped demarcate its edges. NCIS was the most-watched drama series in the US from 2009 onwards, but you don’t see The Ringer giving an essay-length breakdown to every episode. These days, prestige drama in the peak-TV mold is pored over and chewed around by the internet sausage machine. Everything else is deemed disposable, despite the obvious and sustained success of the stuff most people are actually watching on broadcast networks. There’s a lot of snobbery there, but also I suspect the The Rookie audience isn’t too fussed about reading a 2,000-word breakdown by an underemployed Yale grad about last night’s Nathan Fillion fights crime action.
Poker Face, then, is an attempt by what I’ll only-slightly-sarcastically call “prestige TV people” into making production-line TV. Like when a stuffy gourmet chef wants to burnish their “down with the kids” credentials by making the sort of dirty burger you can only appreciate at 3am. Interesting then that, despite the fact its co-creator and star are both poster children for Netflix’s revolution, that the show was set up at Peacock. Created by Rian Johnson, fresh from the success of Glass Onion: A Benoit Blanc Mystery, and Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne, Poker Face is an unashamed homage to a lost age of TV. Or, you know, lost if you’re not paying attention to whatever CBS is showing on Thursday and Sunday nights.
Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, a woman with a troubled past who has developed the miraculous ability to tell when someone is lying. After attempting to use her talent to get rich quickly on a lazy poker tour across the US, she’s caught by a Reno casino magnate. He offers her a hostess job, in exchange for not murdering her to death, making her promise not to use her talent again. When he retires, and his grabby son takes over, he opts to use her talent rather than keep it hidden, embroiling both of them in a murder mystery. Which eventually leads her taking a road trip in her Plymouth Barracuda, solving murders wherever she goes.
And, certainly, the show has leant into the idea that Poker Face is probably the closest thing we’re going to get to a millennial Columbo remake. Certainly, the creative team haven’t been shy about drawing the parallels between the ‘70s classic (and, uh 80/90s less classic) and this. It uses the same Inverted Detective Story structure, with the lead character absent in the first act while we see how the murder was committed and the attempts to build a watertight alibi. Not to mention the choice to title the show with boldface yellow text, complete with copyright date under the title card, and its overall ethos. You’ve got a streetwise, rough-around-the-edges New Yorker with a knack for solving crimes and a classic car. And, much like in its inspiration, Lyonne is going up against a series of A- and B-list guest stars, since the most famous guest star (or stars) is the one that did the murder.
The differences are mostly down to packaging, since Columbo was conceived as a series of movies-of-the-month. (Columbo was originally 90 minutes, but many episodes were “supersized” to two full hours, very commonly to their detriment.) Poker Face is set up as an “episodic” case-of-the-week show, with streaming’s runtime freedom meaning that some episodes run between 80 minutes and just 50 minutes, when the plot is slender enough to justify the trim. That’s good, because it rarely feels like any episode overstays its welcome, and they often skip along at a breezy old clip.
But this efficiency also robs us of one of the highlights that made classic Columbo as it could often be. Watching a short, scrappy, working-class cop square off against higher status opposition was always a delight. And the show would build up to these confrontations, parceling them out along the way toward the eventual denouement. Star Peter Falk was a great, if difficult, actor, and he would often be squaring off against one of his real-life friends, each one a superstar. And they would load each confrontation with depth, nuance and tension as Lt. Columbo sliced apart their “watertight” alibi with a razor blade. Watching Falk against John Cassavetes, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp or the amazing Jack Cassidy was electrifying television. And all of this is cast aside, because Charlie is apparently a human lie detector that knows whenever the guest star lies in her presence. (This is rather unsubtly demonstrated most of the time by Charlie reflexively coughing a naughty word describing male cow poops that we’re no longer allowed to write here.)
In its place, is the recurring twist (if it can be called that) that Charlie was actually present or somehow involved with the situation leading up to the murder. So while Lyonne is absent for the first act of the show, you then see an abbreviated version of those same events showing how Charlie came to be inveigled with the events (and has an emotional stake in solving the crime). In a way, you’ll start wondering how exactly we’ll see Charlie pop up and which scenes that we just saw was she lurking in the periphery of. It’s an elegant way of tying the character and the murder together without making her a shabby police officer in a beige raincoat.
But you don’t need to be a Columbo fan to enjoy Poker Face, and the ultimate litmus test was making my aggressively-Columbo-indifferent wife watch the screeners with me. She said that the show was fun, and it gives you the “joy of seeing how Charlie was there all along.” And that, much like another of her favorite detective shows, Jonathan Creek, you can play along at home, looking for the clues that will eventually point Charlie to solving the case. (The show does play fair, too, and gives you the chance to spot a clue that our hero won’t clock for another few minutes.)
The benefit of the episodic nature of the series is that you can dip in and out of it as you feel like it. I watched the six (of ten) episodes Peacock made available for review in dribs and drabs, watching one, then taking a day off, then the next, in a way that felt similar to how it’s intended to be seen. The only issue for would-be dippers is that you may not quite understand why, at the end of half the episodes, a character I won’t name pops up to glower at Lyonne. This is something the show has borrowed from older shows, where our hero was always on the move in order to stay out of the clutches of the overarching villain and keep the story going. But you’d be a fool not to at least watch the pilot episode, which was written and directed by Johnson. (The second episode, where he just directs, sags a little as it opts to restate its premise for anyone who decided to watch TV like a psychopath and not just start at the beginning.)
Tonally, Poker Face is breezy, despite its rough-around-the-edges world, and there’s often one killer joke in every episode. As much as some episodes might draw from a darker palette, none are even close to being described as “heavy.” It’s not afraid to be a little silly, either, but I’d spoil the fun in explaining how or why it is, so you’ll have to discover that bit for yourself. In fact, most of the fun of the show is just in the watching, so I can’t imagine anyone will be racing to write 2,000-word essay-length breakdowns about how each episode unfolded. Just repeat to yourself: It’s just a show, I should really just relax.
Poker Face debuts on Peacock on January 26th, 2023, with the first four episodes streaming at launch. A new episode will debut every following Thursday for the next six weeks.
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